Music of Holy Week
Don Roberson, Holy Week 2000
The music composed for use by the Catholic church for Holy
Week is some of the most poignant and beautiful of all.
Week is the week before Easter. It begins with Palm Sunday and
ends with Easter. Holy Week is a reenactment, an expression
and connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus
Gregorian chant (the plainsong) that is sung during this week
is in itself very beautiful and very moving. But added to this
are wonderful settings of the Holy Week liturgy by many great
composers, including the great composers of the renaissance: Victoria,
and Lassus. Their musical setting
of the music for Holy Week ranks near the top in the list of
great compositions of Western Classical Music.
will cover some of the details of the services of Holy Week to
help our readers better understand this important week and its
meaning in Christianity, and in music.
Sunday celebrates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.
the next day much people that were come to the feast, when
they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches
of palm trees, and went forth to meet him and cried,
"Hosanna, Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in
the name of the Lord." St. John 12
part of Holy Week is the singing of the Passion. The Passion
according to St. Matthew is read on Palm Sunday (those of St.
Mark and St. Luke will be read on Tuesday and Wednesday).
Also, there is a Palm Sunday procession.
the procession returns to the door of the church, we have a
most beautiful symbolic rite. This return became, naturally,
a symbol of our Lord's entry into Jerusalem where he is to
suffer. In this people saw a conqueror coming to the place
of his triumph. They thought of that entry into Jerusalem as
the beginning of his victory, qui immolatus vicerit.
So they made a great ceremony of his entrance. One has the
picture of a mighty victor thundering at the doors of the
city: "Swing back the doors, captains of the guard;
swing back, immemorial gates, to let the King enter in
triumph" (Ps. 23.7). To welcome Christ, they sent a
choir of boys (boys because of the Pueri Hebraeorum)
to a gallery or platform above the church doors, to sing the
hymn Gloria laus et honor alternately with the
procession waiting below. In many mediaeval churches, the
Palm Sunday gallery is a feature of the building, over the
main doors. In other cases, a temporary platform was set up.
The Gloria laus is, without question, one of the most
splendid hymns we possess. Unlike most, it is written in a
classical metre, in elegiacs. There is a pretty story about
the origin of this hymn. It is said that in 828 Theodulph,
Bishop of Orleans, was in prison at Angers for having
conspired against the Emperor Lewis the Pious, son of
Charles the Great (814-840). From his prison, he heard the
Palm Sunday procession pass. Then he lifted up his voice and
sang out this hymn that he and just composed. The Emperor
was in the procession, and was so charmed that he there and
then forgave the bishop.
the book Holy Week by Ronald A. Knox
meaning darkness, describes the singing of the Matins
and Lauds offices during the last three days of Holy Week.
Normally these offices are sung in the wee hours of the
morning in the secluded confines of the convents, but during
Holy Week, these offices with their associated sublime singing
were moved to an earlier time (to the late afternoon of the
day before) and the public invited to participate. The reason
that the term darkness is used is to not only to
describe the nature of what was taking place (the killing of
the being God sent to Earth), but also to describe the gradual
extinction of the candles that takes place during these
services, leaving the church in total darkness. These services
were powerful indeed.
unbleached-wax candles are lighted on a triangle called a
hearse. The candles are extinguished gradually after each
psalm of the office is sung. The final psalm, the Miserere is
rendered in total darkness. This was the time that the famous
Miserere of Allegri was sung in the Sistine Chapel, and there
are powerful and beautiful Misereres composed by other
Renaissance and Baroque composers as well. It must have been a
powerful event, if one were present in one of the beautiful
European cathedrals witnessing one of the beautiful Misereres
attributed to Palestrina being sung in total darkness on a
Good Friday of long ago.
Matins and Lauds offices consist of the singing of psalms,
prayers and other parts of the service, with a notable part
being the singing of the lessons and responsories associated
with these offices during the Tenebrae period. The Matins
service consist of three parts, called Nocturns, and
during each, three lessons and three responsories are
important week and its meaning in Christianity, and in music
the stripping of the altars, at a suitable hour a signal is
given with a clapper, and the clergy assemble for the
Maundy. The prelate, or superior, wears a violet stole and
cope over amice and alb, and the deacon and subdeacon are
vested in white as for the Mass. The superior puts incense
into the thurible, assisted by the deacon, who afterwards
takes the Gospel book, and kneeling, asks a blessing of the
superior. Then attended by two acolytes with lighted
candles, he makes the sign of the Cross on the book, which
is held by the subdeacon, censes it, and in the usual way
sings the Gospel: Ante diem festum. After the Gospel
has been sung the subdeacon carries the book to the
superior, who kisses it. The superior now removes his cope,
and is girded with a towel by the deacon and subdeacon, who
accompany him as he proceeds to the washing of the feet.
who are to be washed being ranged in order, he kneels before
them in turn, and as the subdeacon hold up the right foot of
each he washes it, dries it with a towel offered by the
deacon, and kisses it. Meanwhile, a number of specified
antiphons are sung.
the book Holy Week by Ronald A. Knox
foot-washing ceremony is followed by the Matins service.
During the first nocturn, three psalms are sung followed by
three lessons and each associated responsory. The second
nocturn opens with the signing of three more psalms and three
more lesion/responsory pairs, then the third nocturn is sung
with three more psalms and three more lesson/responsory pairs.
The Office of Lauds follows with the singing of three psalms,
the Song of Moses, another psalm, then the Canticle of
the candles in the triangular candlestick, except the one at
the top, have [now] been extinguished during the singing of
the Psalms. While the Benedictus is being sung, the
six candles on the altar are put out, one at the end of
every second verse. All other lights in the church are also extinguished.
When the Antiphon Traditor is repeated, the reaming
candle is taken from the top of the triangular candlestick
and hidden under the Epistle side of the altar. All then
the book Holy Week by Ronald A. Knox
the wonderful Christus factus is sung, the Pater
noster is said silently, then the Psalm Miserere is
repeated in a low voice followed by a prayer and the Qui
tecum, and a few other items, are said in silence. Then a
noise is made, the lighted candle is brought from beneath the
altar, and all rise and leave the church in silence.
Friday differs greatly from other holy days. For one thing,
the mass was not said on Good Friday. Instead, a Mass of
the Presanctified is sung, which includes the
Passion of St. John sung either using the original Gregorian
version, or one of the wonderful setting by Victoria or
with alternating plainsong and polyphonic settings. Following
this is the veneration of the cross, filled with ancient and
beautiful chants, and perhaps including one of the glorious
settings of Pópule meus by Palestrina or Victoria, an
perhaps the chorus Crux fidélis, inter omnes by
Palestrina. Following this, the beautiful hymn Vexílla
Regis is sung.
Saturday has a beautiful Matins and Lauds service, similar to
those presented on the two previous days, but using different
music and liturgy: each of the three days has its own Matins
and Lauds settings. Often the lessons and responsories that
were sung were settings by Gallus, Palestrina, Victoria, or
Lassus, or by other Renaissance composers for that matter.
There are true musical treasures in these compositions. The
special service used on Holy Saturday is a Blessing of the
Paschal Candle, the chanting of the Prophecies, and
the Blessing of the Font.
Week ends with Holy Saturday, then Easter Sunday rings in the
new in the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
The music of Easter is joyful and celebrant, in contrast to
the sprit of sorrow during the week before. One of the great
treasures of Easter is the singing of the sequence Victamae
Paschales Laudes. In the protestant church, the spirit of
Easter is celebrated in the glorious Cantata #4 of J.S.
Christ Lag in Todesbanden.
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